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May 07, 2021

Phillies starting pitchers are eating innings, and it's a winning strategy... for now

When Zach Eflin completes his start Friday night with the Braves in town, the Phillies will have three of the top five pitchers in the National League in total innings pitched, and batters faced (assuming he goes five frames). 

There's kind of an old school feel to this Phillies pitching staff, with the trio of Eflin, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler routinely going late into games and absolutely eating innings for a bullpen that is less than reliable.

It's a winning strategy.

It's also a recipe and a tightrope that could lead to disaster, but so far it's worked, and if the Phillies can keep their top three guys healthy and mowing down batters, there's no telling what this team can achieve with a healthy lineup supporting it offensively.

"I think it is a luxury," manager Joe Girardi said Thursday, after Zach Wheeler pitched his first complete game shutout since 2014. "I'm not crazy about doing it too often and you pick your times that you do it, sometimes it's if your bullpen is really taxed or sometimes it's if they are coming off an extra day between starts. How they're throwing the ball, you look at the innings and how hard they are if there are any hard innings... we have three guys who are able to do that which helps."

Wheeler threw 118 pitches in his latest outing, his fourth outing with more than 100. Nola had 109 in his complete game earlier this season and has eclipsed the century mark three times himself. It's something you don't see much anymore, in this era of specialization and with pitchers typically taken out of the game before they get anywhere near the 100 mark.

The NL Cy Young award is Jacob deGrom's to lose, but right on his heals are Nola, Wheeler and to a lesser degree Eflin, all of whom have been among the league's best as far as workload and success goes from the mound.

IP47.2 (1st)43.2 (5th)38.2 (13th)
Batters faced183 (1st)177 (2nd)157 (10th)
Pitches thrown724 (1st)672 (4th)548 (18th)
Strike %62.5 (25th)68.5 (6th)69.9 (3rd)
0-2 counts45 (11th)59 (2nd)44 (13th)

As you can see, from the table above comprised of stats among NL pitchers (of which 102 have started a game so far), the Phillies' innings eaters do it by sheer force and by pounding the strike zone. It's an interesting illustration of a pitching philosophy that relies so much on the defense fielding cleanly, with so many pitches on target and vulnerable to being put into play.

And despite the Phillies reputation — and some particular high profile hiccups defensively — Wheeler says the pitching staff has confidence in the defense behind them, a very key part of creating a successful chemistry in a clubhouse.

"Our defense is solid, don't get it wrong," Wheeler said Thursday. "It was solid last year, it's solid this year, we just make some boneheaded plays at times... every team makes those plays sometimes but I can count on those guys every day of the week out there."

They were most certainly there for Wheeler in Philly's 2-0 win over the Brewers Thursday afternoon, a win that clinched a four-game sweep and put them firmly in first in the NL East.

With two outs in the ninth Wheeler was in his first jam of the game after allowing two singles (only his second and third hits allowed) and Girardi approached the mound, with Hector Neris throwing in the pen. But Girardi let Wheeler finish what he started after a quick chat.

"I just felt like his stuff was still good, he was getting ground balls and a ground ball gets you out of that," the manager recalled. "You have to look people in the eyes and trust they're telling you the truth and he said he was good."

"He asked me if I could get this guy and I said yeah," Wheeler said. "He's been around a while, he has a feel and I think he knows me by now. If I am feeling like I'm not on or I might need somebody I'll tell him to get somebody up, but today I felt fine."

The Phillies pitching staff has the third most no-decisions in the National League with 15, which is more of a knock on the offense than it is the bullpen. The Phillies are 11-9 in games started by Nola, Wheeler and Eflin this season, but that doesn't show the whole picture.

In Eflin's six starts, the Phillies were tied in two of them, ahead on two and down by just one run in two. They went 3-3 in those games. Wheeler, who has just three wins, left with leads three times, the game tied once and down by one and two runs respectively one time each. The Phillies only won three of those starts. 

Still, the big boys are giving their teammates opportunities to win, and that's really all you can ask for.

"That's the goal," Wheeler said, "7 to 9 innings, trying to save the bullpen and help the team out the best you can."

Nola Wheeler and Eflin are doing just that. And if they do it all season, the Phillies should be playing in October.

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